“‘Hi there. Tell me about yourself.’
He held his cardboard sign, folding slightly in on itself because of the crease in the middle, in a half-hearted manner; nobody passing could really read the words in their entirety. I had squinted just hard enough to see a portion of it in black sharpie: ‘Down on Luck.’
Probably in his thirties, the man hid his tan, leathered face with a hoodie, and his leveled eyes stared forward. His face was blank and lifeless. And it wasn’t looking at me.
Silence met my request for information.
At the front of the line stopped at a stoplight, I had rolled down my minivan window. And I didn’t know when it was going to turn green. I also wasn’t giving up.
‘Hi, sir. Did you hear me?’
We were no more than 10 feet apart.
After a short pause, he finally broke his forward gaze and looked up, not exactly in my eyes but in my general direction, with a pithy expression, tipping his cardboard up with one hand: ‘I’m holding this sign.’ Then, back forward again.
I couldn’t tell at the time if his words were meant as a point of clarification (I’m telling you about myself… this is my life right now. Are you antagonizing me?) or dismissive disdain (You annoy me…I don’t have time for this. Go. Away.)
Assuming the first, and feeling regrettable of the cheerful naivety he must have heard in my voice, I responded, ‘I guess that’s all I need to know, isn’t it.’
Then, ‘I’d like to ask: What do you need, sir?’
At this point, if I’d been ignorant of the signals before, it was impossible to ignore them now: tan man was not having it. Not having one bit of it.
Because by the time I deposited this question into our lousy interaction, he had returned to the straight-faced gaze at nothing in front of him, and all I could hear was my engine running.
The light was still red. I was still hanging out of my window. And, even though he was done, I was not.
‘I sense your frustration, but I am just responding to your sign. I can’t read it, and I do not know what you need.’
It was eerie for me to be in the presence of someone and ignored so blatantly that way. After a few more seconds, it is safe to say that I was shaken, maybe even miffed.
Covering up my impatience, I mustered as much calmness as I could: ‘Sir, I do not know why you are frustrated with me. I am extending myself to you.’
And that’s when he pivoted.
He turned toward me – still a distance away – and engaged for the first time. Huffily, he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m just really tired, and I have a terrible headache.’ This man was still ill-mannered and grumpy as hell, mind you, but at least he let me know why. At least he became human.
Gesturing, I said, ‘Well, come on over. I meant it: I would like to help.’
He folded his sign and took the several steps it took to get to my window.
When he got there, he’d softened further, reiterating: ‘I’m sorry, honey, I just feel terrible and my head is killing me.’
By this point, I had my head down in my purse, digging for the McDonalds gift cards I usually keep there. I was feeling grateful that he responded to me, yet all at once flustered by it. The ‘honey’ had made me uncomfortable, and I would be lying if I said his new proximity didn’t, too.
Besides, the damn light was surely about to turn green.
When I couldn’t find the gift cards, I repeated, still head in purse, ‘Tell me what you need.’
Seeing my digging, he said, ‘Anything, honey. Whatever you want.’
Finally, I found a bill. ‘I’d like to give you a twenty. Is that ok?’
As I passed it over, he said, ‘Yes, yes. Thank you. And I’m sorry again. I just am having a real bad day.’
With that, he thrusted his weathered hand forward, looked me right in the eyes with his tired ones, and said ‘My name is Michael.’
At this point, I’m tearing up, what with the unsettling experience of being rudely ignored, followed by the frantic digging in my purse without having a plan for what to give, topped off by an unexpected, heartful introduction: it had been a rather eventful 22 seconds.
Wet-eyed, I shook his hand and said, ‘I’m so glad you let me know your name. I’m Tricia.’
At last look, as I was finally cleared to move through that intersection, I saw Michael pacing back to his station with his head down.
It was then that I lost it. I cried in the van all the way to pick up my daughter from preschool, who was wearing, like all the other girls in her class, a cute outfit and a bow in her hair that cost approximately $5.99. And then, I felt a rise in my chest about two hundred more times that day: while I was watching my kindergartener kick around a soccer ball at his team’s practice on a groomed, green field, while I prepared organic Costco chicken nuggets for my family for dinner, while I wrote a check in the hundreds to reserve a spot for one of my kids’ summer activities, while I laid in bed underneath my warm comforter next to someone I love and who loves me.
My eyes that day were, more than ever, fully zoomed in to my not-Down-On-Luck-ness.
I will not forget Michael and his pissiness. I will not forget Michael and his refreshing humanism. I will not forget Michael’s throbbing head, the feel of his rough hand.
I will never know his story or what he did with the bill I gave him. And that is OK, not the point.
The point is this: I am changed for having connected with Michael.
And I am thankful for it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Tricia Arthur, 40, of Denver, Colorado. Follow Tricia on Instagram here and her website here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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